McSweeney’s, Kirkus and the barely literate digital future
Trying to make sense of Kirkus’ closing in light of the enthusiastic demand for McSweeney’s newspaper project, the San Francisco Panorama, I find a barely literate blog post declaring the stupidity of the book and newspaper industries. Suddenly I wonder if the information highway isn’t hurtling us toward a vacant lot.
“The internet and technology is transforming just about every industry there is,” begins the post by Steven Hodson at Inquisitor.com. “Some at more breakneck speed than others but the change is coming. Changing as well is the consumer’s buying habits as more of our goods are obtainable as never-ending digital goods and for an almost zero distribution cost.”
Hodson goes on in that ungrammatical vein for several more paragraphs. The post is headlined “Book industry joins the news business on the stupid train,” illustrated by a small school bus, the kind assumed in pop culture to transport special needs students. Get it?
What makes this post so dispiriting, though, is not how very poorly it’s written, or the mixed metaphors of its presentation. No, it’s the likelihood Hodson is right in what I will charitably call his “argument.” Traditional media companies are fighting “against an inevitable future” in which technology renders them obsolete.
Meanwhile, McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ admirable journal, has spent nine months putting together an old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama, which went on sale Tuesday and almost immediately sold out, according to Publishers Weekly –despite its hefty $16 price in bookstores.
“The newspaper feels and looks like what the Sunday New York Times used to—complete with its own magazine and stand alone book section,” reports PW. Its 300 pages includes sports, local news, editorials.
“We can’t remember any group of people being as excited about a publication as those for Panorama,” said Stacey Lewis of City Lights bookstore.
I’d like to think the Panorama‘s popularity in San Francisco provides evidence of pent-up demand for real newspapers. But I’m not that stupid. A one-time publication, it is instead an exercise in nostalgia, a last glimpse of what is being lost. Newspapers used to do this every day, remember, using typewriters, glue pots, X-acto knives and lead type.
McSweeney’s publisher, Oscar Villalon, understands the appeal of the Panorama. “While some have credited McSweeney’s with recreating the newspaper,” PW observes, “Villalone said Panorama served more as a reminder of what newspapers were like in the past.”
Goodbye to all that. The internet genie is out of the bottle, I know. There’s no going back. Traditional book and newspaper industries are doomed, a cheering thought to many. But let’s take a moment to ponder the baby that’s going out with the bathwater: professionalism, quality control, expertise, institutional memory, journalistic and literary standards.
I know, too, that many good and smart people are working very hard to make the Internet a viable vehicle for intelligent discourse. McSweeney’s is one high-profile example. Many smaller sites struggle to carry the torch. One example is The Palm Beach ArtsPaper, an online start-up cultural journal founded by recently laid-off print journalists.
I hope they all find ways to make the economics of the web pay, because journalism and book publishing are both labor-intensive operations that in essence create hand-made products. It’s expensive to put out a newspaper, or find and publish worthwhile books.
If not, then “writers” like Hodson are destined to become the norm, and all of the news and opinion we consume will read like this: “The publishers are facing a future of electronic distribution that is beyond their control as e-reader, and more typical devices like smartphones and computers, gain market momentum as principal ways to read our books.”
Shoot me now. In response to my initial post yesterday on the demise of Kirkus, I received a thoughtful response from Robert Woerheide, who struck an optimistic note on the future of publishing: “With readers and writers at its heart–rather than bean-counting execs–I believe the future of literature can still be bright.”
Let’s all pray Mr. Woerheide is right. What do you think? Is there hope for journalism and literary culture?